The modern Gold Rush in an illegal mining town in Peru

  • The foreigners are not welcome in this isolated village in the jungle, where the authority is not clear and at night the neons of the “prostitutes” shine.
  • The town was born and grew with capital obtained from mining, which has reached a size and figures of illegal trade that worry the Peruvian government.
  • Hundreds of Army commandos and 1,200 police officers carried out a huge raid to try to dismantle the city.
The modern Gold Rush in an illegal mining town in Peru

A policeman wears a Guy Fawkes mask that he confiscated in a raid in the city of La Pampa in 2016.

Located along a jungle road, almost 100 kilometers from the nearest city, the town of La Pampa is a place that everyone entered under their own responsibility. At night, the place became a burst of neon lights and strident cumbia music that came from brothels called “prostitutes”, visited by men with pockets full of cash. No strangers or authorities were welcome, let alone journalists.

This town, product of the modern Gold Rush, where about 25,000 people lived, was at the same time a business center for traffickers and organized crime and a gateway to a desert landscape, almost lunar, dotted with toxic pools created by the illegal gold mining, which extended to one of the most treasured reserves of the Amazon rainforest.

But late last month, Peru launched Operation Mercury 2019, considered the largest raid against illegal gold mining. By air, land, and river, hundreds of Army commandos and more than 1,200 police officers rushed over La Pampa.

The Peruvians had almost become accustomed to seeing images of commandos arriving by helicopter to the jungle, driving out the miners and destroying machines in what many assumed was a spectacle for the cameras. But this time, the scale of the operation and the tone of the rhetoric was different.

“We will not go until we see this green site, as it always was,” said José Huerta, Peru’s defense minister. Security forces say they expelled some 6,000 miners, arrested dozens of criminals and rescued more than 50 women victims of human trafficking. The raid was the result of months of meticulous planning and intelligence work.

If the operation continues as planned, La Pampa – which extends almost 20 kilometers along the interoceanic highway – will be wiped off the map.

It will not be easy. Although La Pampa was born as a mining field of wood and plastic sheets on the side of the road that connects Peru with Brazil, now it is a town made and right. It has brick buildings of up to five floors, large nightclubs, hotels, shops, and garages. It also has electricity, water, an institute, and even a church, all built with money from an illegal economy that developed when international gold prices began to rise precipitously in 2008.

Even so, the security forces are determined to destroy the town. They are dismantling the infrastructure and closing the stores, both the illegal enterprises that sell contraband gold or diesel and the stores that paid their taxes. The newly created Amazonian Protection Brigade will set up three military bases in the town with 200 soldiers and 150 police officers, initially for six months, according to the government.

New opportunities that the people do not want

A week after the raid, a heavily armed convoy in which Fabiola Munoz, Minister of Agriculture, was traveling, stopped at La Pampa. “The main objective of this operation is for people to understand that they can not be here,” Munoz said.

Behind them, technicians mounted a high voltage tower to turn off an electrical transformer, leaving a whole block in the dark. “Here there are whole families because they need work,” said Munoz. “We’re going to offer them work, decent work, but somewhere else.”

Miners from La Pampa who want to join the formal economy can move to an area to the west that they have called a “mining corridor,” Munoz said. But they must meet three conditions: “Mercury, child labor and human trafficking are prohibited.”

“The people we have found here are not those who manage the mining activity or those who wash money,” the minister insisted. “These are workers, what we have to do is follow the clues to catch those who move this entire illegal economy.”

While Munoz was speaking, a crowd of angry people gathered. One woman complained: “For Venezuelan immigrants, there is everything: health, education, everything for free, but we are Peruvians and they want to kick us out, it’s not fair, we are not miners, we have a trade here, we earn our living. I invested all my youth in this store, I live and work here and now they want to leave me on the street. ” The woman did not want to give her name.

The Peruvian authorities say that they will continue with the evictions. “This was no man’s land,” said Luis Vera, head of the country’s environmental police force, which had been planning the raid for eight months with information obtained by undercover agents who have identified the heads of organized crime. The police have confiscated accounting books, payrolls and identity documents that will be evidence in future accusations and will prove the origin of the money that finances the dirty gold business.

“There were no authorities here, there were prostitution, commission killings, enforced disappearances, and human trafficking,” Vera said. “There were all kinds of illegal businesses and all kinds of crimes with many victims, including women, who are minors, what we have done is to come and eradicate those crimes.”

There was also a degree of environmental destruction on a colossal scale. The southern limit of La Pampa merges with a 110-square-kilometer strip of jungle in the Tambopata National Reserve, one of Peru’s best-known national parks. Illegal mining, which has reached epidemic proportions in six Amazonian countries, has left an indelible mark on the ecosystem of this secluded region of the jungle, considered the “biodiversity capital” of Peru.

The raid will finally allow scientists to access this area to study the degree of devastation, said Luis Fernandez, of the Amazon Scientific Innovation Center, who leads a team that will assess whether mercury, used in the gold mining process, is affected human health and the ecosystem. “This is an example of the worst thing you can do to the Amazon rainforest,” said Fernandez.

The indigenous communities, the most affected

Illegal gold mining has destroyed almost 960 square kilometers of forest in Madre de Dios since 1985, more than two-thirds of it between 2009 and 2017, according to the research center.

“They cut the trees, killing all the animals in the process, destroying the land, then they put a very toxic substance, which is mercury, into the rivers and lakes at a rate of 185 tons per year … Retrieve an area where it has been done so much damage will take much more than normal, “he said, noting that indigenous communities have suffered a huge impact from mercury contamination.

The dizzying rise in the price of gold has made illegal mining the most lucrative crime in Peru, surpassing cocaine production, according to USAID.

The governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Hidalgo Okimura, a former doctor, backs the blow to illegal mining, unlike the previous governor. “Those who want to stay must go elsewhere or return to the place from which they came,” he said. “Logically we can not give work to the 20,000 or 30,000 people who lived in La Pampa.”

Instead, the government of Peru has promised an investment of 133 million euros for the development of sustainable alternatives such as fish farming, agriculture, coffee, and cocoa. Ecotourism is already a huge industry, with tens of thousands of tourists staying every year in the jungle.

Some residents of the area are worried that, once the 60-day state of emergency ends, the miners and criminals will return to La Pampa, or end up in the region’s capital, Puerto Maldonado. Julio Cusurichi, leader of the Fenamad indigenous federation, says the raid could lead the miners to invade indigenous territories. “Those miners will start looking for other areas, that’s what worries us,” Cusurichi said.

Madre de Dios has six protected areas that cover more than half of its territory and are a refuge for indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.

“La Pampa was badly conceived from the beginning,” Okimura said. “It was a town that the authorities could not even get in. It was a place marked by violence and crime, but all that is now changing.”

Updated: March 27, 2019 — 1:27 am